Fierce … Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.

Marvel’s superhero adventure veers from boomingly serious to quirkily droll as Larson wages a vicious war against evil aliens

This latest tale from the Marvel cinematic universe takes us way back in time, many years before the great catastrophe shown in Avengers: Infinity War. We have crash-landed in mid-90s America: a hilariously antediluvian world of Blockbuster video stores, dial-up internet, web searches via AltaVista, and grindingly slow CD-Rom drives. At one important stage, there’s a soundtrack outing for Nirvana: “Come as you are, as you were / As I want you to be / As a friend, as a friend / As a known enemy …”

This is an engaging and sometimes engagingly odd superhero action moviefrom directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a weirdly nonlinear mashup of past and present, memories and present experience, Earth and non-Earth action. It’s an unconventional origin-myth story, which makes it initially uncertain what the nature of those origins is, and maybe even whose origins exactly we’re talking about. There’s an eccentric splurge of tonal registers from boomingly serious to quirkily droll. It gives us a playful first glimpse of a number of things, important and otherwise, including how Shield agent Nick Fury acquired a notable part of his badass image – Fury played of course by Samuel L Jackson, his face digitally regressed to the way it looked around the time of Pulp Fiction. A lovable cat makes an important appearance.

Digitally regressed … Samuel L Jackson as the youthful Nick Fury.

The film hinges on a fierce performance from Brie Larson, though I think it could have showcased her in a stronger, clearer starring role and assigned her more of the script’s funny lines. She is a tough and disciplined warrior who has been recruited into the ranks of the Kree, an alien fighting force previously seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, engaged in a vicious battle with the Skrulls, a nation of extraterrestrial shapeshifters, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). And here, incidentally, is another qualification: I wanted more martial arts and kickboxing action from Brie Larson, because these are very good moments.

When she finds herself detached from her unit in time-honoured, war-movie style, all alone on our own planet – which one of her comrades harshly describes as a “shithole” despite the fact that it looks considerably better than any other planet featured here – she is plagued by memory flashes, fragments of what appears to be a lost Earthling identity. There are glimpses of an unhappy childhood, a cruel father, a Top Gun-style military training in the US air force alongside a loyal friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) and a mysterious mentorship from an enigmatic woman played by Annette Bening. These are the puzzle pieces that must be fitted together so she can understand her own captaincy of a mighty superhero destiny.

Boden and Fleck nicely set up her mix of determination and vulnerability in the initial training scenes, vaguely reminiscent of Clarice Starling (and there is a reference to that other 90s pop-cultural touchstone, The Silence of the Lambs). She has to practise her martial arts in one-on-one dialogue jousts with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and establish an ésprit de corps with fellow soldiers, including Minn Erva (Gemma Chan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou).

Law is sprightly enough, but Larson’s chemistry is much more on Earth with Jackson, whose young Nick Fury here is very good; he works so well with Larson. They have a great scene together when they have to work out how to escape from a locked USAF office.

Shapeshifter … Ben Mendelsohn as Talos.

Larson has the natural body language of a superhero: that mixture of innocence and insouciance, that continuous clear-eyed idealism and indignation combined with unreflective battle-readiness, all the things that give MCU films their addictive quality. I wanted a clearer, more central story for Captain Marvel’s emergence on to the stage, and in subsequent films – if she isn’t simply to get lost in the ensemble mix – there should be more of Larson’s own wit and style and, indeed, plausible mastery of martial arts. In any case, Captain Marvel is an entertaining new part of the saga.